Last weekend, I spent some encouraging and depressing time in London. Encouraging because I was attending two terrific events and two great London institutions – Tate Britain and the National Theatre. Depressing because both places were putting on work by two of England’s gloomiest and most pessimistic artists – L.S. Lowry and Christopher Marlowe.
I spent a considerable time living around Manchester before it became the trendy modern metropolis that it is today. I was lucky, or maybe unlucky, enough to remember it in the days when it still looked like a Lowry painting.
The Football Match (1949) by L.S.Lowry
In those days I rather took his work for granted. Enjoying its graphic originality, minimalist colouring with those memorable blacks and reds contrasted against sludgy grey skies.
Saturday Afternoon (1941) by L.S.Lowry
I loved, too, those bent figures, workers going to work or recovering from it. Always out-of-doors making the most of lives tough lived with dark satanic mills. I loved those little dogs too – Manchester terriers, I think.
Returning From Work (1929) by L.S.Lowry
I was working in San Francisco some years ago interviewing the owner of a stylish art gallery. We were interrupted by a potential customer who dug out of a pile of stacked frames a small painting by the same L.S. Lowry. The gallery owner said he knew nothing about the artist but the visitor said he quite liked the moodiness of it. I interfered and told them how Lowry is revered in Britain and that the asking price, just a few hundred dollars, was a major bargain. He bought it on the spot. Maybe I should’ve been less enthusiastic and got it for myself.
River Scene (Industrial Landscape) 1935 by L.S.Lowry
There were many Manchester accents in the Tate that day and an unusual mix of generations from the very elderly to parents with babies and toddlers. It was moving to hear them talking so nostalgically. ‘That’s were nan lived’ ‘Do you remember that viaduct?’ ‘All those chimneys have gone now.’ I’m sure there was much happiness in those days but looking at some of those images of industrial pollution and working people bent down by the pressures of unrelenting mill-work, I couldn’t but help lamenting for the people who had to exist in such conditions.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
In the evening I went on to the National Theatre for the new production of Christopher Marlowe’s bleak and pessimistic history play Edward II (1593) in an exciting but controversial production by Joe Hill-Gibbons. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/edward-ii
It was a Marmite production with the audience and critics – you either loved it or hated it. Joe Hill-Gibbons isn’t frightened of doing things his way even risking ridicule for his efforts. He knows that Bertolt Brecht was fascinated by Marlowe and even made his own adapation of Edward II and so this production was steeped in Brechtian techniques following the German master’s determination to continually remind the audience that this is a play and that it should be experienced as such without any dispensing of disbelief.
There was to be no hiding from Marlowe’s darkly atheistic nihilism portraying a world where we are all, king or peasant, no more than survivors awaiting extinction.
In an impressive and energetic cast, John Heffernan (Edward II) and American actor Kyle Soller (Piers Gaveston) were terrific as Marlowe’s very un-Shakespearean star-crossed lovers taking what they could find in their love already knowing that it was to lead them into Hell-like chaos.
Leaving the theatre, wrung out by pessimism, sobered by Marlowe’s world-view, I thought too of L.S. Lowry pollution belching chimneys and travelled home double-checking that the ground beneath my feet wasn’t going to cave in at any moment. I was not so depressed though that I couldn’t celebrate the healthy state of London’s cultural life that I could be so successfully buffeted and moved by this display of artistic excellence.
As I’ve been reporting, I’m getting into gear for the imminent publication (31st October 2013) of my novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.
You can already pre-order the book from the publishers, Ward Wood Publishing: